Cat Person is a darkly comic US drama, directed by Susanna Fogel and based on a 2017 short story by Kristen Roupenian, exploring the pitfalls of modern dating. It tells the story of a university student who begins to see an older man after brief meetings and text flirting. She becomes increasingly concerned, however, that he may not be quite the person he presented himself as. The film was submitted to the BBFC for classification in September 2023, and we classified it 15 for ‘strong threat, violence, sex, language, bloody images’.
The classification issues in Cat Person are comfortably accommodated at 15 according to our Classification Guidelines. However, the complex nature of the themes explored in the film had to be carefully considered so as to ensure that our content advice represents the film in the most accurate and appropriate way for audiences.
For example, a significant sexual encounter between Margot (Emilia Jones) and Robert (Nicholas Braun) engages ideas around consent, verbal and non-verbal communication, sexual embarrassment, ego and gender. Visiting Robert’s house for the first time after a somewhat disappointing date, Margot wrestles with some doubts about her new partner: firstly, there is no sign of the cat Robert claims to own. More dark comedy underpins Margot briefly imagining herself chained up in a torture room as if trapped by Robert. These unsettling visions, also occurring at other moments in the film, are acute and sometimes frenzied, communicating Margot’s fears about Robert potentially becoming violent. Indeed, these fears exemplify the quote from author Margaret Atwood on sex, which opens the film: 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.'
The scene continues with the couple kissing. Robert moves into his bedroom, where Margot is faced with an imagined vision of herself who – acknowledging where the encounter is leading to – asks if she still really wants to have sex. Pointing out that it would be ‘messy and hurtful’ to tell Robert she has changed her mind, Margot decides to proceed in spite of her doubts. She and Robert undress, awkwardly engaging in sexual activity on his bed. The depiction of sex is vigorous and features multiple sexual positions, lacking graphic nudity, which can be contained at 15.
The sex scene clumsily continues with Margot talking to the vision of her other self, their dialogue expressing her state of mind while having sex with Robert. It is increasingly clear to the audience through this exchange that Margot wants to stop, but her fears about Robert becoming violent if she were to voice her true feelings keep her from speaking out. Despite her discomfort, Margot attempts to bring the encounter to an end quickly by encouraging Robert – who becomes more enthusiastic and rough – and ultimately faking her own orgasm.
The key question for the compliance officers viewing this scene was how to accurately represent the issues at play. While the scene in Cat Person portrays Margot’s feelings of threat in the context of a sexual encounter, the threat itself does not appear to be sexual in nature. Robert’s behaviour can be deemed to be insensitive and heavy-handed, which seemingly contributes to Margot’s state of mind, but it is ultimately left to the audience to weigh up these factors for themselves. As such, the scene portrays the uncomfortable ambiguities that can arise around issues of sexual consent and communication between sexual partners. The sequence is sensitively handled, has a darkly comic tone, and focuses on inner dialogue rather than on a graphic depiction of sex. It is also relatable, and may well resonate with audiences who have experienced similar encounters.
Indeed, the complex presentation of sex and consent in Cat Person contributed to its 15 classification. Every 4-5 years, the BBFC seeks the views of more than 10,000 people across the UK to ensure our standards remain in line with audience concerns and expectations. The sexual encounter between Margot and Robert was subsequently viewed by the Compliance team, who acknowledged the challenging issues it presents but ultimately agreed that 15 is the appropriate classification for the film.
As well as issues of sex and threat, the film features a sequence of violence which involves strangulation, biting, scratching, and use of improvised weaponry, such as a lamp and pizza cutter. The intensity, protracted nature of the sequence and accompanying bloody detail also placed violence as a key classification issue at 15. So too did a scene depicting a strong bloody image from a character’s nightmare – that of a dog standing over a person’s headless corpse.
Cat Person also contains strong language (‘f**k', 'motherf**ker') as well as moderate ('twat', 'bitch', 'whore') and milder terms ('bullshit', 'shit', 'dick', 'piss’). BBFC Guidelines allow for strong language at 12A if used occasionally, but in this case the frequency of terms exceeded the threshold and contributed to the film’s 15 classification.